Bafana Bafana’s hopes of making the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations semifinals came crashing down as they suffered last-minute heartbreak in a 2-1 defeat to Nigeria at the Cairo International Stadium on Wednesday night.
In an absorbing and tightly-fought game with not much in the way of clearcut chances for either team, the Super Eagles had drawn first blood through Samuel Chukwueze in the 27th minute.
South Africa, who had been struggling to penetrate the Nigerian defence, were given a lifeline with a VAR-awarded goal for Bongani Zungu in the 71st minute, only to switch off at an 89th-minute corner which allowed William Troost-Ekong to head home the winner.
The first half saw Bafana Bafana enjoying plenty of ball possession. But although they had some neat interchanges, they lacked the guile as well as the pace and power to threaten in the final third of the field.
A pattern of play was to emerge which saw the Super Eagles happy to concede possession before looking to steal the ball and launch quick counter-attacks, largely down their left flank, when Ahmed Musa was causing problems with his pace.
Arsenal midfielder Alex Iwobi was also looking dangerous. And when he skipped down the left-hand side of the box and pulled the ball back for Chukwueze, the deadlock was broken as the Villarreal striker’s first effort rebounded off Buhle Mkhwanazi before he slotted past Ronwen Williams from close range.
South Africa were able to regroup, but once more they struggled to find a creative spark, and while Thembinkosi Lorch showed a few fleeting moments of promise and Lebo Mothiba did his best to link-up play from the front, Bafana Bafana talisman Percy Tau looked some way off his best as his touch eluded him.
The west Africans meanwhile remained a big threat on the counter – nearly every time they broke from deep – and it took a last gasp tackle from Dean Furman a couple of minutes before the break to stop Chukwueze from scoring.
Following the restart, the Super Eagles looked determined to stamp their authority on the game and they tried to drive home their advantage with a second goal as Peter Etebo had his free-kick tipped onto the bar by Williams before the ever-menacing Chukwueze played in a great ball across the goal-line which narrowly eluded Odeon Ighalo.
If South Africa were to get back into the contest, they needed something special. Or, as it turned out, a big slice of fortune.
That came when Tau floated in a free-kick which was flicked on towards Zungu, who sent a looping header over Daniel Akpeyi – Nigeria’s Kaizer Chiefs goalkeeper – and into the net.
Drama then ensued as the off-side flag went up, only for the video assistant referee (VAR) to rule the goal legitimate, after replays showed that although Zungu had been off-side, the previous touch had come off the back of Ighalo and not the challenging Thulani Hlatshwayo.
At that stage, the game was very much up for grabs and it looked like it could go either way as extra-time drew ever nearer.
But with a minute of regulation play to go, Moses Simon swung in a corner kick which was missed by Williams and bundled home from close range by an unmarked Troost-Ekong.